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  • The Cæsura of the Symbolon in Aeschylus' Agamemnon
  • J. Michael Degener
Aristophanes Frogs 1109-14

But do not fear lest there be some nescienceAmong the audience,  That they may not understand your finest points,Don't fear this, for this is no longer possible.For they have been armed,They have the book in hand and are learning the  subtleties.

What envy the modern philologist feels imagining the casual ignorance of Aristophanes' audience poring over their popular editions of the Oresteia, envy shaped by what are, in the case of the parodos to the Agamemnon, some of the most important and intractable instances of or nescience in the history of western literary scholarship! What approach has yet to be essayed over the centuries to resolve the critical enigmas surrounding Calchas' prophecy? And where else has the absence of the book, a secure text, given rise to greater perplexities? The prudent efforts of classical philologists to secure the text in the face of the anxieties that this uniquely [End Page 61] complex work presents must not go unappreciated, but neither should such prudence any longer be allowed, in contravention of the spirit of Aristophanes ' challenge, to foster an excessive, putatively empirical conservatism that impedes a courageous embrace of the polyvalencies of Aeschylean ambiguity. For only such an approach will finally provide solutions to the age-old questions: what is the significance of Calchas' prophecy? What is the prophecy's relationship to the sacrifice of Iphigeneia? Why did Artemis demand the sacrifice of Iphigeneia? Moreover, such an approach is also necessary to provide the answer to a question that has not yet been properly posed, the key to all the others: did Artemis demand the sacrifice of Iphigeneia? And to some others not yet imagined: what is the role of the symbolon? and the graphê? So we, too, must take the book in hand to respect the equally important exigencies expressed in the phrase, ,1 i.e., "getting it right," without succumbing to an , a lack of knowledge, as regards the rhetorical subtleties of Aeschylean ambiguity an their profound implications.

First, however, in the spirit of Aristophanes' indirect address to his Athenian audience, it is necessary to establish renewed attention to the dramaturgical-textual complexities and self-referential character of the Agamemnon. Segal's essay, "Vérité, tragédie, et écriture," displays a sensitivity to the multiple dimensions of the aesthetics of tragedy, particularly in its emphasis on the role of writing: "Désormais les poètes tragiques ne s'intéressent pas seulement à créer un spectacle, mais ils veulent aussi attirer l'attention sur leur propre pouvoir de créer des spectacles, sur le système des conventions avec lequel la forme elle-même opère" (1992.339). It is just such a dynamic that characterizes the opening of the Agamemnon, for Aeschylus alerts us in the closing words of the lookout's speech that special attention is due to what may be therein concealed (38-39):

[these walls] would tell these things most clearly, for I  speak willingly [End Page 62] to those who understand but to those who do not  understand I am concealed.

Although it will be "most clear" only later, these words announce Aeschylus' precise relationship to his own audience (be it that of 458 B.C., 405 B.C., or in perpetuity)-in the clarity of his own words to follow and the division between those who will, and those who will not, learn his meaning.

The lookout, alone on the palace roof, addresses the audience directly in a manner that simultaneously initiates the action of the play and reveals its aesthetic form. While explicit at 31, , "I myself will dance the prelude," (as indicates the imminent entrance of the chorus, , on stage), a more subtle conjunction is anticipated on the eastern horizon. A certain pause--establishes the present moment of the spectacle, while the lookout, alone with the audience, surveys the silent firmament (8-9):

and now I am on the lookout for the symbolon of the  signal fire,ray of fire bearing forth from Troy the speech

It is from among the stars, (6-7), that the ray of fire...


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